Reconsider nuclear energy initiatives

23 March 2012 - 02:11 By Crispian Olver

Much to the horror of greenie friends, I've always been a pragmatist when it comes to the use of nuclear technology.

Crispian Olver
Crispian Olver
Crispian Olver
Crispian Olver

Given the limited choices we have in moving away from coal-based electricity generation, I am inclined to see nuclear power as an inevitable component of a future low-carbon energy system.

But I have serious reservations about the current approach we are following to expand this sector. And there are basic pre-conditions we have to meet if we are to open up this industry responsibly.

Firstly, as many commentators have already pointed out, there will be the inevitable problems with procurement and corruption.

The state plans to spend up to R400-billion on the nuclear programme, which will make the arms deal seem like a picnic.

Secondly, we simply have not yet invested sufficiently in alternative forms of low-carbon energy to justify such a large-scale commitment to one technology.

The government's total planned expenditure on renewable energy is R120-billion. In other words, for every rand spent on renewable energy, three will be spent on nuclear energy. As a simple premise, energy security depends on having a diversity of energy sources and technologies at our disposal.

It is hard to believe we are not able to exploit the massive solar resources with which our country is blessed. For me, a simple pre-condition for investment in nuclear energy is that we must make an equivalent investment in other low-carbon technologies.

That we are not doing so reflects the "big project" and outdated technology bias of our energy planners.

Then there is the problem with nuclear safety. South Africa's nuclear regulator is simply not up to ensuring the safety of our nuclear power plants. Since the apartheid era, the country's foray into the building of nuclear weapons and the investment in Koeberg, we've always had a toothless and compliant regulator, content to do the bidding of its government masters.

There has been a steady erosion in the regulator's capacity.

Today the regulator is barely able to keep its eyes on the current Koeberg operation, never mind ensure global best practice in building a new generation of nuclear power stations. Without a properly functioning and strong regulator, large-scale investment in nuclear power holds suicidal risks.

Finally, there is the problem of nuclear waste. During the decades of Koeberg's operation, South Africa has failed to come up with a safe long-term solution to management of the waste. We still store our waste in drums at Koeberg. In the case of a nuclear accident, this would be the most dangerous place possible to store it.

We need to stop this irresponsible programme.